The confirmation hearings for Harriet Miers to become a justice of the Supreme Court will once again highlight a complex web of issues related to abortion, on which she may become the swing vote. While activists on both sides describe abortion as an issue on which there is no middle ground, decades of polling have shown public opinion on abortion to be anything but black-and-white.

Clearly, Americans believe that no single issue before the court has greater importance. A Pew survey in July found that 63% said that abortion was a very important issue before the court; only the rights of detained terrorist suspects were seen as equally significant. Other recent surveys show that most Americans feel it is important for the Senate to learn a nominee’s position on abortion before voting on their confirmation.

The public has long been strongly supportive of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which established a woman’s right to abortion. In July, the Pew Research Center found that by more than two-to-one (65%-29%), the public opposed completely overturning Roe. That is in line with surveys conducted by Pew and the Gallup Organization dating back to 1989.

Yet opinion on overall access to abortion is highly dependent on the circumstances. Consequently, the results of surveys on this issue can vary widely with subtle differences in wording. As long ago as the early 1980s, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found a majority of Americans (59%) opposed to allowing a woman to get an abortion “if she decides she wants one no matter what the reason.” But in a CBS News/New York Times poll at around the same time, a comparable majority (65%) favored permitting a woman to get an abortion if she wants to have one “and her doctor agrees.”

Moreover, while the public unambiguously backs the legal right to abortion, there is broad support for an array of restrictions on abortion. Polling in recent years has shown large majorities favor such measures as mandatory waiting periods, parental and spousal notification, and a prohibition on late-term abortions.

Interestingly, there is virtually no gender gap on most abortion questions — about two-thirds of both men and women oppose overturning Roe. And younger people hold pretty much the same views on abortion as their elders. But younger women (those younger than age 50) attach greater personal importance to abortion as an issue than do older women or men.

Between the Extremes

A common approach to measuring general attitudes toward abortion is to ask people to place themselves into one of three or four categories of opinion on the issue. These questions include two “anchor” positions on either side of the abortion debate — allowing abortions in all situations or banning them in all situations — while offering one or two middle positions. (See Table 1)

A July survey by the Pew Research Center found slightly more than a third (35%) saying that abortion should be “generally available to those who want it:” 23% believe it should be available under “stricter limits;” 31% say abortion should be against the law except in cases of rape, incest and to save the woman’s life; and 9% say abortion should not be permitted at all.

Pew’s measure is consistent with the approach taken by other major survey organizations, but the results vary somewhat depending on the specific choices given. For example, a May 2005 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey is the only one in which a majority of respondents (55%) favor unfettered access to abortion; notably, it also frames the issue as a matter of personal privacy (“the choice on abortion should be left up to the woman and her doctor”). On the other hand, survey organizations that ask about the legality of abortion, rather than its availability, find far less support for making abortion “legal under any circumstances” (CNN/USA Today/Gallup 24%), or “always legal” (Los Angeles Times 24%). Still, every major national survey finds at least a somewhat higher level of support for making abortion available or legal in all cases than for a total ban on the practice.

Despite these differences, most Americans take a middle-ground approach toward access to abortion, regardless of whether or not it is presented as a legal issue. Pew finds a 54% majority saying that abortion should be “against the law except in cases of rape, incest, and to save the woman’s life” or “under stricter limits than it is now.” ABC News/Washington Post shows an even larger majority (63%) saying abortion should be “legal in most cases,” or “illegal in most cases.” In the Los Angeles Times survey, 60% say abortion should be legal “most of the time” or made “illegal except in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother’s life.”

However, within this middle ground there is a degree of variability. Pew and most other surveys that offer respondents four possible options regarding the availability or legality of abortion find somewhat higher percentages favor the more restrictive of the two middle options. But the ABC News/Washington Post survey, which casts the issue in more general terms, finds the balance of middle-ground opinion tilting in the opposite direction: 36% feel abortion should be legal in most cases, while 27% think abortion should be illegal in most cases.

Getting Specific

The public draws clearer distinctions on the acceptability of abortion when specific circumstances are provided. These polls suggest that the public is strongly supportive of abortion when the physical or psychological health of the mother may be endangered by pregnancy, or when the pregnancy came as a result of rape or incest. By contrast, most Americans disapprove of abortion when the circumstances relate to economics, life choices or a personal preference not to have a child.

These distinctions are seen in major surveys conducted in recent years by CNN/USA Today/Gallup and the General Social Survey. (See Table 2) Both surveys find overwhelming majorities accepting of abortion when the woman’s psychological or physical health is endangered, or in cases of rape and incest. They show divergent levels of support for abortion in cases of birth defects — in the General Social Survey, 75% said a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion “if there is a strong chance of a serious defect;” CNN/USA Today/Gallup found smaller majorities support if the baby “may be…impaired” either mentally or physically.

There is majority disapproval for abortions arising from economic hardship or because the mother is not married and does not want the baby. And there is overwhelming opposition to abortions “after the sixth month of pregnancy or later” (86% in CNN/USA Today/Gallup).

Moral Implications

Opinion on access to abortion is closely tied to one’s views of the morality of abortion. In Pew’s July survey, the plurality view is…it depends. Roughly four-in-ten (41%) said that, legality aside, having an abortion is morally wrong in some — but not all — cases. Fewer Americans take the less conditional positions that having an abortion is “morally wrong in nearly all circumstances,” or alternatively, that abortion is “not a moral issue.” (See Table 3)

Surveys that provide respondents with just two options on the morality of abortion have shown conflicting results. Gallup in May 2004 found an almost even split on the question of whether abortion is morally wrong — 50% say yes, 48% say no or it depends on the circumstances. An ABC News/Washington Post survey showed 58% felt abortion when the mother’s life is not in danger to be “morally unacceptable.”

Broad but Qualified Support for Restrictions

The public’s views on abortion policy restrictions also underscore the circumstantial nature of opinion on this subject. As seen above, there is broad disapproval of abortion in the latter stages of pregnancy, and this is reflected in support for proposals aimed at outlawing the practice. In 2003, President Bush signed into law a measure to ban late-term abortions, but it has faced court challenges and has yet to be enforced.

There is no recent polling on this issue, but at around the time of the law’s enactment polls typically showed solid majorities saying that “late-term abortion” or “partial birth abortion” should be illegal. (See Table 4) In January 2003, CNN/USA Today/Gallup found 70% favored outlawing the procedure, except in cases to save the mother’s life. Ten months later, CNN/USA Today/Gallup asked a different version of the question, which did not include the exception for saving the mother’s life, and obtained nearly the same result (68% illegal).

However, other surveys that raised possible health exceptions more directly found greater differences of opinion on this issue. In July 2003, ABC News showed that by 62%-20% the public said that the “late term abortion procedure known as dilation and extraction, or partial birth abortion,” should be illegal. The survey then asked a follow-up question of those who did not initially say the procedure should be legal, asking their opinion if the procedure “could prevent a serious threat to the woman’s health.” In that circumstance, 41% of those who had said the procedure should be illegal changed their minds and favored making it legal.

The public is unambiguous in its support for laws requiring that minors seek the consent of a parent before getting an abortion. Pew’s measures on this issue have been very consistent over time: in July 73% favored such a parental consent requirement. That compares with 69% who supported this proposal in 1999 and 73% in 1992. (See Table 5)

Significantly, most proposals that place limits on abortion draw broad support. That is very much in keeping with the desire of most Americans to limit the frequency of abortion. In July Pew found that 59% of Americans believe it would be a good thing if the number of abortions were reduced. Two years ago, Gallup showed strong support for an array of abortion restrictions — including a requirement a for a 24-hour “waiting period” for women seeking abortions, and mandatory counseling on alternatives to abortion. Nevertheless, the public doe not want to outlaw abortion entirely — the only restriction on abortion tested that did not receive majority support was a constitutional amendment banning abortion except to save the mother’s life. (See Table 6)

Roe v. Wade

In contrast to the public’s conflicted views on access to abortion, its opinions on the Roe v. Wade decision are fairly clear. There is consistently strong support for Roe and equally widespread opposition to its repeal. In this case, differences in question wording appear to have little effect.

Pew’s question asks if the Supreme Court should completely overturn the 1973 Roe decision; just 29% say yes, while 65% disagree. Other surveys that ask simply whether Roe should be upheld, or allowed to stand, get similar results. And beyond supporting the Roe precedent, the public agrees with the substance of the decision: An MSNBC/Newsweek survey in January 2004 found 60% agree with the Roe decision “that says states should not be allowed to ban abortion.” (See Table 7)

Abortion and the Court

Americans clearly view abortion as one of the major issues before the Supreme Court. However, Pew’s July survey showed that as many people said the rights of detained terrorist suspects were a very important issue before the Court as said that about abortion (62% terrorist suspects, 63% abortion).

Recent polls also show that most Americans believe it is important for appointees to the Supreme Court to reveal their positions on abortion. (See Table 8) In a CBS News/New York Times survey last month, more than three-quarters (77%) said it was important for the Senate to know the abortion positions of (now Chief Justice) John Roberts before voting on his confirmation. However, despite Roberts’s reticence on this subject, a late September poll by Fox News/Opinion Dynamics found a majority of Americans (54%) said he did an excellent or good job of answering questions during the hearing; only about a quarter (24%) said he did a fair or poor job.